How Hollywood Bombshell Hedy Lamarr invented WiFi
The actress, model and inventor is being rediscovered thanks to a new documentary about her incredible life
When it comes to women who have revolutionised the STEM industries – that is, the worlds of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – there are few people as fascinating or inspiring as Hollywood actress and model Hedy Lamarr. Hers is one of many 'hidden' or forgotten stories of women now coming to light thanks to filmmakers Alexandra Dean and Susan Surandon, whose documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is out on International Women's Day, 8 March.
Best known as a film actress and MGM starlet described by studio mogul Louis B. Mayar as "the most beautiful woman in the world", Lamarr – born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna in 1914 – was best known for a string of romantic hits including Samson and Delilah, Ziegfeld Girl, White Cargo and Experiment Perilous.
Her smoky-eyed sexuality would overshadow her achievements for much of her life, thanks to her first movie Ecstasy (1933), in which a 19-year-old Lamarr played a frustrated bride who has an affair with a young man. The explicit flick portrayed what is thought to have been the first on-screen female orgasm, and was banned in the United States.
But between takes, Lamarr had another passion – science. Her incredible successes included fixing an aeroplane built by her lover Howard Hughes as well as inventing communications devices for the US military.
"Hedy inspires me because she was so brave," Bombshell director Alexandra Dean told Tempus. "She was this glamorous actress who had a firm conviction that she could fix the problems of the world through invention, and even though she didn't have a degree in science or maths, she taught herself the science and engineering she needed to know, sought out help where she needed it and invented something completely groundbreaking." >>
Her greatest victory was during World War II, when she came up with the "frequency-hopping" communications system designed to guide radio-controlled missiles underwater undetectable to the enemy. She developed the system with a friend, composer George Antheil, and together they patented the design in 1942 – it later became the basis for modern wireless communications. Yes, WiFi.
"I think young women need to know about her today because she is so inspiring," said Dean. "The numbers of women going into STEM fields is declining, we're down to less than 25% women in STEM fields so I think young women need to hear the story of this fearless actress and glamour girl who also mastered the art of invention."
Although the US Navy eventually embraced her idea, Lamarr was encouraged to contribute to the war effort in her role as a pinup - entertaining the troops, and selling kisses as well as war bonds.
"We tend to think that women can be pretty or smart but not both - and that's rubbish," Dean said. "Stories like Bombshell, and Hidden Figures [about the female African-American mathematicians who worked for NASA in the 1960s] and so on really tell us that women are as complex and multifaceted as men. Of course they are - why did it take us so long to show them that way on screen? They can be beautiful and brilliant, lovely and difficult, and inspiring - all in one package."
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is in cinemas now